“You’re a man of contradictions.”
There is an inherent selfishness that comes with being a creative voice. Producing any kind of art is an indulgent affair, one where personal opinion and taste are of sole importance. Movies about these kinds of visionaries are tricky because the protagonists are so self-centered, so defined by their inflated egos. Listen Up Philip falls into this same trap but claws its way out with sharp performances and an almost invasive, up in your face shooting style. While it’s no page turner, the dark and acerbic humor combines with a surprisingly effective reflection on the tolls of lauded veneration to ably fill the pages that have been bound together.
The whip-smart and rapid narration by Eric Bogosian introduces us, somewhat reluctantly, to Philip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman). Philip lives in New York and only now begins to think of it as home after 9 years. He shares an apartment with his girlfriend Ashley (Elisabeth Moss), a photographer who seems to float money to Philip on a consistent basis. A successful first novel has his narcissism at an all-time high only to be brought down to earth from Cloud Philip with delays on his second release. As you might tell from the excessive use of male pronouns in this paragraph, Philip has no interest in the outside world. His deepest affection, his only semblance of love, is stubbornly fixed inwards. Philip’s character can be boiled down to a single snippet of dialogue after finding out a potential interviewee, of whom he was jealous, committed suicide. He says, “I mean I’m glad he’s dead and all, but doing that interview would have been a really great opportunity for me.” Such hubris.
Listen Up Philip’s big turn comes when legendary author Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce) invites Philip to use his backwoods summer home to escape the confines of New York. To harness his creative and productive energy. Ike and his protégée are the same person glimpsed decades apart. It’s a pretty drastic shift in point of view and lets us into the life Philip, and Ike, both prefer; a world chiefly concerned with themselves. However, there are hiccups in the story that prevent the film and us from really understanding these haughty men. Ike’s daughter Melanie (Krysten Ritter) is a needless distraction who gets one scene to tell her father off a-la Emma Stone in Birdman. Philip’s stint as a distanced and unfocused professor doesn’t add to his character. Instead it makes an already conflicted, churlish man even more unlikable. Listen Up Philip didn’t need to branch out because there is already a vat of material eagerly waiting to be shared by these two pompous pricks.
The above missteps and a rushed third act diminished the hard-hearted and conceited reality of artistic pursuit. As played by Schwartzman, a true master of the introverted wise-ass, Philip somehow escapes antipathy. He can be spiteful, but he isn’t mean. He can be rude, but he isn’t cruel. Philip is out of touch with reality. All he knows is how to write. How to find comfort and satisfaction in his own words. When Ike’s arc comes to a close, Philip’s becomes less interesting, entirely because we know where it is headed…right down the same path.
I don’t think this movie could ever be loved. But it’s incredibly realistic in its behind the scenes depiction of inventive artistry and firsthand destruction. It tells us too much and shows us too little, but here, like its indulgent lead characters, that might just be the point. A little editing and proofreading would’ve made this one of the finer films on authorship. Still, Listen Up Philip capably pumps laughs into the gloomy lives of artists and those who surround them unable to find personal identification while the virtuosos stave off human connection, preferring to listen up to the isolated voice in their own swollen, superior heads.
“Don’t accept too readily something you might want.”
Rating: 3.5 out of 5